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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

Possession Day & Latimer v Phillpotts
by Fred R Spark - from Memories of My Life


Possession Day

On ‘Possession Day’ the ancient custom of beating the bounds (or ‘taking possession’) was carried out by various parish churches in the city. A man was appointed to act as captain over a number of not very reputable youths. Carrying a long pole decorated at the top with May flowers, the captain traversed that part of the city wherein was any property belonging to his particular parish. In some instances disputes arose as to the boundary rights. A rival captain and his crew, meeting undisputed ground, at once gave fight. Broken heads were numerous, and the victorious party claimed legal possession of the disputed territory. In one parish, running down to the River Exe near the basin, a boundary stone was set up in a mill-race. To strike this stone with the official pole the captain had to wade up to his neck in the stream. This was regarded as an heroic act, and the cheers of his followers were accordingly given to the captain.

On this date also, two or three boys would conspire together to create a pond of dirty water, and demand toll from passengers if they would escape the splashing of this muddy water. This discreditable practice was permitted in ‘the good old days’ prior to the advent of Peel’s ‘Bobbies’.

When my voice broke, I was article to my brother, then organist of Tiverton Parish Church, and very soon was put by him to play the organ of the New Church, which was recorded in 1846 by The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – ‘Mr Fred Spark, who was elected organist of the New Church Tiverton, last week, is the fourth child of Mr Wm. Spark, Lay Vicar of the Exeter Cathedral, who has been elected organist – an unprecedented fact – all four now been organists in as many parishes, viz., Wm. Spark, Jnr., Tiverton Parish Church; Elizabeth Spark, St. Martin’s, Exeter; Edward J. Spark, St Lawrence, Exeter; Fred R. Spark, New Church, Tiverton.

Thomas Latimer v Bishop Phillpotts

At the end of about 12 months, my musical studies were not regarded as a success, and my brother, having succeeded in gaining an appointment at Daventry, I went home to my parents in Exeter. Looking for something to do I saw a notice in the window of The Western Times – ‘office boy wanted’. I applied for the position, and engaged at four shillings per week. The ordinary duties were, I suppose, so well performed, but I was being considered worthy of a better position, and an apprenticeship to Thomas Latimer and the newspaper business was entered into. Being 16 years of age my term of service was for five years only.

It was during this time but the celebrated case of ‘Bishop Philpotts versus Thomas Latimer, Labourer’ was heard at the Exeter Assizes. This was an indictment for criminal libel. The practices of the High Church party were at this time causing great strife, and the Evangelicals were everywhere up in arms against the Ritualists. Nowhere more than in the Exeter diocese was bitter feeling felt, or more drastic action taken. Bishop Philpotts, known as Henry of Exeter, prosecuted several clergyman for breeches of the Prayer Book rubric. Thomas Latimer almost weekly in The Western Times wrote comments on the ecclesiastical events, and the Bishop often came under the editorial lash. In one article the Bishop was charged with tergiversation (changing sides. Ed.), and it was written of him that ‘His sins rolled off him like water off a duck’s back’. These words were the gravesmen of the libel charge. Great indeed was the excitement on trial days, and when the verdict of the Jury was given in favour of Thomas Latimer, the whole city turned out with bands and banners to express their joy.

At St Sidwell’s Church, the vicar was the first to preach in a surplice. For months, every Sunday, he was mobbed on his way to Dix’s Fields, where he resided, and he had to secure police protection.

Exeter Cathedral Library and Archive © 2013

Fred R Spark was born in 1831. He was a brother of Dr William Spark, a pupil of Samuel Sebastion Wesley.

Re-published by permission of Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives

The Exeter Cathedral Website

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